The Rural Alliance for Service Learning
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Small Towns, Small Schools

Small Towns, Small Schools: Academic Service Learning in a Rural Middle School

Heidi A. Stevenson, Northern Michigan University

This case features a service learning project undertaken by three first semester undergraduate college students at Northern Michigan University. Common characteristics of rural service learning were present, including: “border crossing” for college students from urban backgrounds into a rural environment, a service learning site in a rural community with limited funding—and therefore a greater need to be filled by the service learning project, and the phenomenon of informally organized action brought on by necessity.

As a part of their first-year composition course, these college students worked with middle school students as after school writing tutors. Their close and continual engagement with the middle school served in part as an introduction to common attributes of the “small town” mindset for the college students, which they discussed repeatedly in their reflection journals. This mindset included different communication styles, opinions about secondary and higher education, and preconceived notions about the college students as representatives of an urban environment.

Several weeks of this close engagement also worked to alert the college students to problems the middle school students were encountering. They were able to gather data on specific needs of the middle school students unfulfilled by the existing tutoring program. After gathering this data and discussing it with their composition course instructor, the college students took the initiative to propose a more structured tutoring program for the school. This became part of their writing-intensive service learning project.

The college students gathered additional primary research data from the middle school students and school administrators, primary research data from education professors at the university, and secondary research data on tutoring pedagogy. With guidance from their composition instructor, they also researched proposal writing. All of this went into their final document for the composition course, which was also submitted to the middle school administration.

Eventually, their proposal was accepted and the program was implemented by a small group of informally organized school employees, university faculty, and the service learning students themselves. College education majors became volunteer tutors for the program, which was facilitated by a group of teachers and administrators. The new, more structured program served a need for the middle school for which there had been no formal source of funding, and also provided a valuable academic opportunity for education students at the university.

These students had a positive and uniquely rural experience with their service learning work. This case illustrates a few key benefits specific to rural service learning: the project allowed for the students to immerse themselves and reflect upon their new, rural environment, it helped them understand the unique challenges a small, rural school system with a limited budget might face, and ultimately, the college students were able to take part in the commonly rural practice of organizing informally when they can together with a small group of people to initiate the new tutoring program and take part in significant positive change.

RASL Activities

RASL just finished organizing an anthology on rural service learning, currently under review. 

In the past, RASL has organized gatherings of rural service learning practitioners and is hoping to do so again.

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Yorkshire Dales Landscape background photo by Petr Kratochvil.